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March 24, 2014

Look back, look ahead: Regrouping required

From a pitching perspective, South Carolina's three-game series at Kentucky this past weekend is easily divided into two unequal segments.

Segment 1: The first three innings of Friday night's frustrating 13-5 loss in which USC horrifically surrendered 10 runs on 11 hits and uncharacteristically exhibited shoddy defense.

Segment 2: The final 22 innings in which Kentucky collected eight runs on 14 hits as USC played nearly flawless defense.

Stranding 10 runners, the Gamecocks wasted an outstanding outing from lefthander Jack Wynkoop on Saturday, falling 2-1 in a series-clinching win for the Wildcats. USC salvaged one game in the series by prevailing, 8-3, on Sunday, snapping a 13-game winning streak by the home team in the USC-Kentucky series.

Before Sunday, the last time a visiting team won a game in the hard-fought USC-Kentucky baseball rivalry was May 7, 2010, when the Gamecocks won the series opener, 13-9, in Lexington.

"Kentucky is a solid ball club and they play extremely well at home," USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers said Monday night on Sportstalk. "We had our work cut out for us and we knew it. Obviously, we got off to a bad start in Game 1 and tried to regroup. We sought to get a better effort in Games 2 and 3, which we did. But we were only able to win one of those. So, it was not a good weekend. Hopefully, it's an experience that will make our guys tougher having gone through it."

Freshman RHP Wil Crowe became USC's first five-game winner on Sunday as he did not allow a hit until the fifth inning, working six-plus innings (he faced one UK batter in the 7th) and allowing three runs on four hits with two strikeouts.

For the season, Crowe is 5-0 with a 1.63 ERA in 38.2 innings with 25 strikeouts and six walks. Opponents are hitting .197 against Crowe.

"Wil came out with a pretty good feel for what he wanted to try to do," Meyers said. "He gave us a good outing and we were able to do some things better offensively and played good defense."

Right now, Crowe is the least of USC's concerns. Meyers likely spent the seven-hour bus trip home Sunday night figuring out how to straighten out struggling southpaw Jordan Montgomery, who allowed nine runs on 10 hits in two innings on Friday night, and was victimized by shaky defense.

The series setback dropped USC just one spot to No. 2 behind Florida State in the weekly Baseball America poll. Nonetheless, Kentucky's shellacking of Montgomery elevated concerns about the junior lefthander as USC prepares for a busy week on the diamond with five straight home games at Carolina Stadium.

Montgomery, who also struggled in a loss to Ole Miss a week earlier (6.0 IP, 6 hits, 6 runs, 5 K, 3 BB), hasn't been sharp in recent outings.

"It's probably a compilation of a lot of things," Meyers said. "The expectations he's trying to uphold could snowball on him at times. It's not anything he can't handle. It's a momentum thing and he hasn't been able to get into a really solid groove where that momentum carries over into the next start. He hasn't pitched extremely poorly time after time. He's had some good spurts where he's shown flashes of bringing even better stuff to the table than he has in the past.

"But he hasn't been able to maintain exactly what he wants to do out there. He's not far off. Obviously, he's had a couple of pretty poor outings by his standards. He threw decently against Ole Miss until the last few hitters he had to face. It's not like he's not making any quality pitches. You want to stay positive, which is tough to do after an outing like he had on Friday."

What are the chances USC moves Montgomery out of the Friday starter role in the near future? At the moment, slim.

"Jordan is a solid guy that has been through the rigors a little bit having pitched in SEC play even as a freshman," Meyers said. "He's our guy. He has to throw better. We know that. As long as he's healthy and continues to make some adjustments that he needs to make to get back to where he needs to be, we're going to give him opportunities there."

Montgomery is 3-2 with a 4.99 ERA in 30.2 innings pitched with 35 hits and 21 runs allowed while striking out 32 and walking 12.

The series loss at Kentucky dropped USC (3-3) into a five-way tie for first place in the SEC East along with Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. How much parity exists in the conference? Twelve of the 16 teams have three or four league wins.

Single contests against Palmetto State foes College of Charleston (16-7) on Tuesday and Coastal Carolina on Wednesday precede a three-game weekend series against SEC East rival Tennessee beginning Friday at 7 p.m.

USC announced Monday afternoon that promising freshman right-hander Taylor Widener (1-0, 0.00 ERA, 10.0 IP, 6 hits, 1 run, 9 strikeouts, 2 walks, .167 OBA) would make his second career start against the Cougars, whose head coach Monte Lee is a former Gamecock assistant.

Widener threw 34 pitches in 2.1 innings after taking over for Montgomery at the start of the third inning in Friday night's loss at Kentucky.

"He kept the ball down very well and got ahead of some hitters," Meyers said. "He's done a nice job out of the bullpen a couple of times. We gave him a spot start a week or so ago. He's a young guy that has a good live arm. If he's getting ahead of hitters, hopefully he can get us off to a good start tomorrow."

Widener, the starting designated hitter in Sunday's 8-3 win, will be opposed by CofC freshman RHP Tyler Thornton (0-1, 4.71 ERA in 21.0 IP).

NATIONAL RANKINGS: No. 2 in Baseball America, No. 2 in Collegiate Baseball, No. 4 in Perfect Game USA, No. 3 by USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll.

Mar. 21 at Kentucky, L 13-5
Mar. 22 at Kentucky, L 2-1
Mar. 23 at Kentucky, W 8-3

March 25 vs. College of Charleston, 7 p.m.
March 26 vs. Coastal Carolina, 7 p.m. (FOX Sports South)
March 28 vs. Tennessee, 7 p.m.
March 29 vs. Tennessee, 4 p.m.
March 30 vs. Tennessee, 1:30 p.m.
(All Times Eastern)


-- Meyers said Evan Beal is "fully healthy at this point" and could take the mound soon in a game.

-- Joey Pankake carries a 10-game hitting streak into Tuesday's home game against College of Charleston. He is hitting .385 (15-for-39) during the hitting streak with a .455 on-base percentage. Pankake walloped two homers in the Kentucky series, including a three-run shot on Sunday. He also homered in Friday's loss to the Wildcats. Pankake is hitting .307 (23-for-75) for the season with 12 RBI and a team-high 24 runs scored.

-- Joel Seddon worked a perfect 2.1 innings of relief on Sunday for his seventh save of the year. The right hander from St. Clair, MI, struck out four of the seven batters he faced. Through 22 games, Seddon has not allowed a run in 11 relief appearances and just two hits in 13.2 innings pitched. He has 20 strikeouts compared to two walks. Opponents are hitting .045 against him.

-- Junior reliever Cody Mincey did not allow a run in two relief appearances last week and has not allowed a run in a team-leading 12 relief appearances this season. Mincey is 2-0 on the year in 15.2 innings pitched with 24 strikeouts and five walks. Opponents are hitting .135 against him.

-- Freshman outfielder Gene Cone made his first career start in Sunday's win over Kentucky.

-- USC is hitting .304 (226-for-743) as a team with a .384 on-base percentage and a .431 slugging percentage. The pitching staff leads the SEC with a 1.87 ERA. The Gamecocks have 193 strikeouts in 197.0 innings. Opponents are hitting .213 against the Gamecocks.

-- Defensively, USC is fielding .978 as a team with 18 errors in 22 games.


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